Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Revise for Readers 1 - Quick fixes for your story

I've long advocated Kurt Vonnegut's technique of writing a first draft for a specific reader. This immediately provides focus, pacing, and diction for your piece. Do this, and you are automatically well-positioned for revision.

Now, once you begin rewriting, it's good to think beyond telling the story to just one person. Now is the time to remember why people read stories (and watch movies). So, without pretending that I'm presenting an exhaustive list, I'll review some of the reasons people hunger for stories and suggests some quick fixes that might elevate your work. (Next week, I'll dig into repairs that take more time and effort.)

First, people don't come to your stories with the idea of engaging in labor. Yes, someone reading mystery will be trying to work out whodunit along the way, and an SF reader may put an effort into imagining your strange new world. But in general, you are responsible for doing the work. This means that if you don't make things clear, readers will stop reading. Beta readers with red pens are your best allies in making sure that whatever you wrote comes through. Naturally, you also have an obligation to choose appropriate vocabulary and pay attention to the rules of grammar and spelling.

Diversion is probably the main reason why people sit down with the novel. They are looking for a break, a bit of fun, and some entertainment. Much of this depends upon your initial concepts and character development (not easy to fix). Let me suggest three fixes to a complete draft that might take a story that is intrinsically interesting and make it better.
  1. Include hooks and cliffhangers. Anything that will raise questions, engage, and keep readers interested will make your story more compelling and entertaining.
  2. Look closely at where and how you revealed important information. Aristotle talks about the value of astonishment in storytelling. To me, this means riddling the work with (appropriate and fair) surprises. Withhold choice bits of information as long as possible without cheating. And frame these in ways that set them off.
  3. Get rid of the boring parts (as Elmore Leonard advised). One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to highlight the sections of your manuscript that are back story and narration. Especially at the beginning of a story, these can drag and may be important only to the writer. Getting them into the draft is good and necessary work. Leaving them there can be tedious for your reader.
The use of adverbs, adjectives, and "junk" words like "that," can also rob your story of energy and make it drag.

Knowledge/perspective/humor – Lots of people come to stories to learn and to see their worlds differently. Research can be a good route to providing intriguing details that people will want to remember (as long as you don't overdo it). Both the perspectives of people who are different from the readers and your perspectives, if you see the world in a skewed way as most humorists do, can be the reason why the work attracts readers in the first place. Add something to the sound of the language (which may be more than a quick fix) and you have most of the components of voice. Why do editors and agents always talk about how important voices to them? Because it's important to readers.

Lessons/rehearsal for life — In a first draft, it's quite likely that there will be elements to a story that provides a good model for dealing with situations we all face, but these may occur in order that is random. It may also be that there are events that distract from the model, diminishing its value. Here, provided you have a good handle on the lessons embedded in your work and you have the courage to reshape it, the solution is to take out the parts that, although interesting, are not essential. Then, with the remainder, reorder so the stakes escalate for the protagonist.

Promises – The most obvious thing to check for here is making sure all the expected genre events are included. (A showdown in a Western, for instance. Or a first kiss and a romance.) This means you have to know your genre well, understand how to present these incidents in a fresh way, and take the time to inspect your work to be sure you didn't leave them out or otherwise shortchange the reader.

I could add to this list. Sometimes it doesn't take much to create more empathy for characters or take something unexpected out of the premise or refine the language so it's more lyrical. But the point is that it is worthwhile to keep in mind reader expectations and check to see that they are fulfilled before you finish revising your manuscript.

Now, sometimes more than a quick fix is needed. And that's what I'll cover in my next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It's All About the Stories - Five years of boosting productivity

I've met so many people with talent. With stories to tell. With insights and perspectives that need to be shared. Caught in productivity traps.

That has been the driving force for this blog. Now, five years later, I’ve had the chance to publish over 300 posts on the techniques and practices that can set imaginations free, open doors, and make writing fun. I’ve been delighted to see writers break bad habits and get stalled manuscripts moving. For me, this has created opportunities to teach and speak, but the real joy is seeing people live the lives they have dreamed of (or, at least, get a little closer).

So, after 140,000 page views (about 75 a day on average), I’m hoping some of you feel this is a milestone worth celebrating. And what better way to observe this occasion than by pointing you to the most popular posts and series of these five years? So, here they are…

Most Popular Posts

Plotting for Pantsers 2 - Build your storytelling muscles

NaNoWriMo Success 2 - Fast Drafting

Bigger 4 - Creating Endings That Buzz

Stories Off the Leash 3 - Worlds on edge

Time to Write 1 - Minutes, energy, and tasks


Most Popular Series (other than those that include one of the "Most Popular Posts")

Six Ideas on How to Prepare to Write Productively

Stories Off the Leash (7 posts, beginning with this one)

Write Who You Are (6 posts, beginning with this one)

Fast Reads = Better Stories (5 posts, beginning with this one)

A Pantser's Guide to Revision (5 posts, beginning with this one)


Now, those are just my writings. I have had the help of many a writer in the form of interviews and guest posts. In fact, the most popular post of any kind by far is one by Scrivener maven Gwen Hernandez. It has been viewed over 8,000 times, more than the next two posts combined.

What’s next? A lot more posts. I haven’t come close to running out of material (probably because I’m writing all the time and facing the same challenges you are). I’ll continue to teach the old courses and to develop new ones.

I am well along in writing How to Write Fast: Productive story drafting. It should be available in September. I’ve outlined two follow-up books on revision and leveraging your story premise. To support my move into publishing, I’ll make a newsletter available. This will have announcements of my ventures, but the heart of it will be the kind of exercises, templates, and checklists that have been valuable to my students. I’ll also include some giveaways (Want me to be your productivity nag for a month?) and the opportunity for some subscribers to become beta readers for the books. I haven't started building a mailing list yet, but, if you're interested in the newsletter, send me a note at howtowritefast@gmail.com Put newsletter in the subject line.

Finally, thanks to all my readers, followers, commenters, retweeters, sharers, and contributors for all the joy this blog has brought me over the years.
 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic 2 -- The story essay shortcut

Last time, I introduced the idea of identifying and exploring your story topic as a way to deepen your connection with your work, find interesting development options, and make the experience more coherent for readers and audiences.

After having done this in a shoot from the hip way, I've reworked my process to interrogate the work and create a clear statement I can use as a guide. I ask questions, and then I write a brief essay (usually about 100 words) about the story's topic.

I've found this so useful that it has become a standard practice for me (most often after a draft is complete, but it could be done as part of development beforehand). To illustrate it, I'll work through the questions with a well-known (and wonderful) story, that of the film Casablanca. If you don't know the movie, watch it right away. It is one of the classics for good reasons.

What does the story explore? Though I could (and have) come up with other topics, the main one here seems to be connection and responsibility.

What does the character explore? Initially, Rick, the protagonist has no connections and is not interested in developing them.

“What is your nationality?” “…I’m a drunkard.”
“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”
"I stick my neck out for nobody." 

But Rick has loved before, and the possibility of love causes him to look at that connection, friendships, empathy for those in trouble, his hunger for justice, and, ultimately, the pivotal issue of his time.

"I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Rick also experiences the benefits of connection. Again, the change is dramatic, from

“Go ahead and shoot. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

to

“We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

Who is the audience? Upon it's release, I think most people saw Casablance as a propaganda piece (Variety called it, "splendid anti-Axis propaganda") aimed rousing an American audience to fight the Nazis. One pointed remark:

“I’d bet they’re asleep in New York. I’d bet they’re asleep all over America…”

But the story reaches far beyond its own time into ours. The audience is not just reluctant Americans looking for an adventure story. It is one of the great works of art, inspiring generations, worldwide. 

At this point in my analysis, I take a fresh look at the theme. To me topics are subsidiary to themes, so this provides a check. My own take on Casablanca's theme is that sacrifice humanizes us (which seems to fit my stated topic).
So...

What is the story about? If the pain and loss we suffer has meaning to us, it opens us to experiencing the miracle of living.

Why does it matter?  Viktor Frankl introduced the idea of Logotherapy, with the premise humans "are motivated by a will to meaning, an inner pull to find a meaning in life." With meaning, "people will be willing to sacrifice and people will find strengths they did not know they had when they think there is something more important than their comfort." According the the Victor Frankl Institute, "we can help those who are suffering by turning their attention away from themselves and on to something they care for enough to want to do it for its own sake, not for any personal gain."

How does this relate to me? My life has not been free from discomforts and suffering. I also am deeply empathetic when faced with the suffering of others. Making sense of suffering, finding ways to come to grips with suffering, to find and express, and to create and maintain routes to positive values leads to more happiness, acceptance, and social connection in my life.

What are my touch points? I'm not going to get overly personal here, but I do not set limits as I work through the questions and the essays for my own works. In private notes for this work, I would undoubtedly reflect on particular losses, injustices, frustrations, and grieving in my own experience and the experiences of those I know well.

Evidence for the topic (connection and responsibility).
Note: This is not about proving this topic is a good choice for Casablanca. It is about identifying instances that explore the stated topic. For a work that is not mine, the list may be set, but I always try to go further with any story I've written, even if the draft is "complete." Without being comprehensive, in Casablanca:

1 Rick sacrifices love for a higher cause.
2 Rick rescues a woman from Louie's clutches by rigging the roulette wheel.
3 Rick risks the wrath of the Nazis (via the Vichy government) by allowing the Marseilles to be sung.

Etc.

Emotional element.
I like to call this out specifically. People go to fictional books and movies for the emotional experience. Finding that within the topic and stating it gives it prominence.

Casablanca is rich in emotion. Most obviously, with the love story, which includes deceit, betrayal, reconciliation, passion, and caring. But connection also shows up in terms of righting injustices that easily might be ignored, small kindnesses, friendship, loyalty, respect, honor, and more.

What the ending needs (to accomplish). The joy of Casablanca is Rick, who had become a loner, connecting with others, from the individual level to people in community (at an historic level). I love the way this is expressed not just with sacrificing love for the higher cause of defeating the Nazi, but with something more immediate:

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

You may want to shuffle the questions around and even revisit your answers as your understanding of your story deepens. Your next step is to write the essay. I always write as if I am sharing my insights with a specific person I think would be interested. I'm not trying to convince them my topic is the only key or even the best choice for illuminating and exploring the work. The only qualification is that it resonates with me personally and I have the urge to share it.

This, to me, seems reasonable. I want whatever story I'm writing to reach me on a emotional level and to be something I have a passion to share with at least one other person. Often, when I write, the essence is known, if not articulated, in the first draft. But the essay challenges my understanding and ensures that it is clear enough to communicate well, without my missing major elements.

In practice, this enhances my enjoyment of the work, especially as I enter the revision process. I hope you find it useful as well.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Closer Look at Your Story's Topic -- What are you talking about?

Somewhere between the hook for a story and the theme, there exists (usually) a topic. This came home to me as I binge watched Nurse Jackie. I have very little doubt that underneath the general subject of addiction, the writers had deliberately made each episode an exploration of codependence or one of the 12 steps or deceit, etc., etc.

Now having a specific topic did not constrain the writers in terms of characters or overall season arcs. And the humor in each episode was not damaged by the serious intentions. These are terrific, well-written, well-acted episodes. But, I suspect, deliberately examining topics — either before or after drafts for written – provided concepts and coherence that made these stories powerful.

I looked at other series with regard to topics. The Sopranos seems to deal repeatedly with answering the question, can people change? And a series of challenges to attempts to change were explored within and across episodes. Breaking Bad, to me, was all about looking at the many dimensions of power and the possibilities (and consequences) of corruption.

Films often have the investigation of topics driving their plots, too. One of my favorites, Amadeus, seems to explore on one level what it means to be gifted, but on a more dominant level the toxic properties of envy.

Why does this matter to you as a writer? For one thing, understanding the topic – whether it emerged from a fast draft or was determined ahead of time — suggests story options and realistic plot turns. A topic is something that can be explored and reflected upon in an abstract way and then realized within your story world.

In fact, if you identify the topic within your story, it's likely to activate your curiosity, and that will connect you more closely with your story and enhance your commitment to doing it justice.

What you feel about your story and what drives you to write it comes through in one of the most essential qualities of good storytelling — emotional involvement. One thing I do once identified topic is look for touch points within my own life. If my brain came up with a reason to write about the topic, it's a sure bet that I'll find reasons that touched my heart and, probably, take me to the scary places where the best writing waits.

Now, identifying a topic can have its drawbacks. It can be all too easy to have characters mouth conclusions and ideas that don't fit. If the topic of a particular episode emerges in the writing, it may be that it does not fit the overall concept for a series. Especially when a topic leads to a passionate argument, it can make it difficult to edit. The structure of your work needs to be be less about making a point and more about telling a good tale, and that can be a challenge when you've become attached to your topic. You don't want to turn your story into an essay.

However, you may want to have some questions that allow you to write an essay that can inform your storytelling. And that will be the subject of next week's post.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 5 - Revealing questions

In many cases, if you want to know about someone, you ask them questions and listen to their answers. Most people interview each other when they first meet. They get the basics, like names and professions. They may spur conversation with a compliment (love that necklace) or by mentioning an observation (sports/university logos on clothing, an accent).

And, if you have tuned your perceptions, you pay attention to the tone of the replies, the facial expressions, the hesitations, and the body language. You also take into account the context -- when and where you are asking and who else is around.

Interviewing characters is also a good way to get to know them. You can ask standard questions, and I've offered some "tell me about" interview prompts in a previous post. I'll add to that list here, but first I'd like to tie things up for the Bonding With Your Story's Characters series.

Throughout, I've said to know characters is to connect with them. In real life, you know people by what they do and say (and what they don't do and say). That means listening, watching, questioning, researching (through others and through artifacts, including online files), working with them and asking them questions.

If your subjects are actual living people, you probably can do all of these (with some exceptions for inaccessible celebrities). If your models are deceased, you can only research them.

If your characters are based on real people, they can be fictionalized, which may open up everything. It isn't unusual for me to end up listening to and observing my characters (whether I like it or not), and I understand this is common for a lot of fiction writers, once they get some understanding of their subjects. Working with characters was covered briefly in previous posts in this series. That takes an active suspension of disbelief and a developed and disciplined imagination.

If your characters are not based on real people, you can't research them directly, but you can dig into the lives of real people to get answers and examples. And then it is up to you to integrate them into the whole character in a credible way.

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is what the characters are thinking and what they are aware of. With real people, we may make assumptions about these, but we never really know what's going on in their minds. With fictional characters, the potential for absolute answers is there, and it is one of the joys of fiction to get perspectives that we can't access in real life.

Since I wrote the "tell me about" post two years ago, I've come up with some additional questions I value. Pick out a character, sit down with her in a coffee shop, and see if any of these questions get you anywhere:

What do you, character, need/want?
What is your biggest flaw (on the Seven Deadly Sins level)? When have you demonstrated it?
Why are you appealing? When have you demonstrated this?
Even if you don't know your family, what is your family role in the story? (This is especially valuable to find out when putting together characters for a series.)
What characterizes your connections (relationships) with others? (Collaborating? Provoking? Dominating? Helping? Organizing? Listening? Persuading?)
How powerful are you and how do you acquire and maintain power?
What characterizes your conflicts with others? (Or do you avoid conflict?)
What pushes you to the limit or triggers out-of-control or anti-social behavior? Have you experienced important traumas? Do you have acute sensitivities?
Tell me about your deepest secret(s).
What do you need to find out in the story?
What do you need to learn in the story?
Why are you distinctive?
    •    Style
    •    Skills
    •    Defects/flaws
    •    Perspectives
    •    History
    •    Magic (even if this is not fantasy or paranormal)
Why are you surprising?
What obligations do you think you have? What obligations do you actually have?
What is your work (and what are your attitudes toward work)?
What is your code of honor and what do you value? 

That's the set of questions I'm using now to explore my characters. Sometimes, I fill out what I think the answers will be before I imagine meeting with the character. What I've discovered is they often will surprise me by what they know, what they don't know, and what I got wrong.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 4 - Sidekicks, best friends, and minions

A special word this time for the best friends, minions, and spear carriers who fill out your casts or populate the imaginary spaces of your novels. These are the valued ones who are held for ransom… or callously disposed of by villains.

Why should you worry, as a writer, about connecting with your secondary characters?

It all comes down to creating the best experiences for readers and audiences. While it is a mistake to have a secondary character who overshadow your protagonist (and probably your antagonist), if you don't know them well enough to allow them to credibly play their roles, your story will be diminished.

A wise old man or crone can point out the path the hero or heroine must take. The confidant becomes the proxy for readers anxious to know what's on the protagonist's mind. The princess must be saved. The sidekick must carry the message. The femme fatale must lure the main character into danger.

Secondary characters can turn the story. They can intensify the stakes. It is usually not the main characters, but they who state the theme . Secondary characters illustrate the existence of a larger world. They also help the writer, through techniques like comic relief, to manage the emotional pacing of the story.

As I did with protagonists and villains, I will go through each of the nine dimensions with the secondary characters, but not with all of them. That could be a series of articles in and of itself. I’ll just sample the list as I need to so I can make my points. The rest will be left to you.

So here's the list:

Investment – If you get too involved with your secondary characters, you'll burn a lot of writing time. That's your choice, but the danger is you’ll become too attached. It's easy to unintentionally shift the spotlight away from your main characters if you fill a notebook with interviews and observations on the heroine’s best friend.

You should, however, invest enough so your secondary character is slightly more vivid in your mind that might be appropriate. Everything in a story is seen “as through a glass darkly,” so a little exaggeration is warranted. But, when the waiter delivering a glass of water to your hero explodes off the page, it distorts your plot and sets up inappropriate reader expectations.

One big exception here is what you write in a series. If your next book will focus in on this secondary character – a very popular approach for sequels of romance novels — getting the reader interested is part of marketing your next book.

Communication – I like to explore secondary characters within the contexts of their roles — both their official tasks and their relationships with protagonists and antagonists. This means I often do very limited interviews with these characters. I explore how they themselves feel and think about these two roles.

Commonality – Here, I'm mostly interested in giving myself touch points. To avoid too closely identifying with these characters, that often means grabbing aspects of people I know casually. People I meet once or know through others work best because, in these cases, I will have noticed something that clicks with me, but I don't have the full picture. Roger Zelazny created a secondary character in one of the Amber books who was clearly himself. What resulted was an amusing and memorable scene, but it pulled me out of the story. So be careful about taking a star turn yourself.

Concern — For children in jeopardy, damsels in distress, and other characters who motivate the acceptance of difficult missions, character change, and sacrifice on the part of your protagonists, it is essential that you, as a writer, have as much concern for them as your main characters do. Too often, I find in movies and television shows that the "prizes" who motivate heroes and heroines didn't seem worth it. For me, it makes all the anxiety and action come off as over-the-top and foolish.

Tolerance – What I love about secondary characters is that the more fleeting they are, the more obnoxious and ridiculous they can be. Annoyance is a powerful spice, especially when readers can put down books and viewers can change the channel or pop out the DVD. But in small amounts, especially in longer works, they can create zesty moments.

Reliability – The traits of a secondary character are limited. Be very careful about making them variable. Still, it can be done. For instance, it's very effective to have a minor rival congratulate the main character once the objective is achieved. It helps to underline and amplify the success by showing that even an enemy recognizes the victory. But generally we depend upon secondary characters to provide, sounding boards, unchanging perspectives that respond in understandable ways to the actions, ideas, and comments of main characters.

Surprise/Mystery – See reliability above, with one additional idea: It is wonderful for your plot to be complicated, for obstacles to be made tougher, and for stakes to be raised because a friendly secondary character makes a mistake. Usually, though they may be helpful within their roles, they should not surprise the hero with something that makes life easier.

Mutual dependence – Yes, minions are disposable. But, you as a writer, should feel a little pain when they make their final departures. And it's even more true with characters who fill larger roles, but don't rise to the level of main characters. In every case, a secondary character should be there for a reason, and, as their creator, you can't be uncommitted. Be present, at least a little bit, even for the poor spear carriers.

Shared work/risk – While you can't let them take over, it can be good to give your secondary characters some latitude. Trust them (even if they are minions or femme fatales).

One more thing to think about. Casting is one of the most important factors in the success of a movie or television show. An important point of advice for scriptwriters, therefore, is to make sure that the roles that will make or break the production are written so that good actors will want to play the parts.

When you think about this in terms of either script or a novel, it means you as a writer are required to think beyond the plot value of most of your characters. No one wants to play device. Or read about a character who only serves a function. So don't shortchange your secondary characters because you're afraid they'll steal the show (or you don't think it's worth the bother).

Keep it interesting. Keep it fresh. Create stories that are bigger than the page or the screen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 3 - Shake hands with the devil

Building a good connection with your story's antagonist is tricky. Ignoring the humanity of a villain can result in creating a two-dimensional melodrama character or monster. But having too much empathy can make the villain's plans and attacks too moderate and cheat readers of all that the premise promises.

There is also the temptation to redeem the character, no matter how bad. In principle, some redemption at the end can work well. But in practice, it can fail miserably if the atonement isn't justified and earned by what happens in the story. Note: the character changing his or her mind does not count. There needs to be action.

Okay, with that warning in place, let's explore the villain using the dimensions I used for a hero in last week's post:

Investing in the antagonist by spending time with him or her can be disturbing. I remember how unsettling it was once for me when I realized a friend who came along with me on a grocery shopping trip was eating her way through the aisles and slipping items under her shirt. I get the same sort of unsettling feeling when I imagine myself doing normal activities with one of my story's villains. Who wants to go to the library with someone you randomly tears pages out of books? Or be a passenger in a car where the driver is texting?

Of course, many villains will act normally, even nobly, as they accompany you on typical, daily activities, but it's best if some of these provoke bad behaviors.

On communication, my questions tend to be not much different from what I ask other characters. However, I will try and slip in some bits that are likely to provide openings for bragging or which, with most characters, would lead to apologies. (In fact, sometimes I explicitly ask villains to say they're sorry – with interesting results.)

On concern, you may have are guest that I sometimes have problems with the villain's redemption. But I think it's reasonable to include, at a minimum, worry about whether even the worst of antagonists faces damnation. This means taking the time to truly imagine what damnation might mean for him work for her. Having that in your head will provide a valuable touch point as you seek to humanize your villain. I also like to figure out what sort of scenario might lead to self-destruction.

I don't think there's a good excuse for tolerating the worst behaviors of a villain. It's possible and valuable to understand why they do evil things, but if part of you doesn't prefer a very different choice, conflict can get muddied. (And if you think all actions are equally moral, I'm not sure I want to spend much time with you.)

I find, for myself, toleration of villains is more in the area of their tics and mannerisms, which often are irritating. It doesn't hurt at all to have an antagonist whose hypocrisy or bad manners or slovenly behavior bugs you. False charm is a pet peeve of mine, and I tend to include it in villains. Part of their job, after all, is to be irritating (in many, but not all cases). So, toleration here means hanging around with characters who bother you. And that's part of your job.

Reliability, for a villain, should mean that you can count on them to do anything to achieve the goal (often, just stopping the hero). Going deeper, means establishing the core behaviors that define who this villain is and why he or she does what they do. And, working from the outside in, I always try and see if there are any consistent triggers that can be included to provoke over-the-top and unavoidable reactions.

The villain's main job is to go further than is reasonable. This automatically means that surprises are part of what an antagonist brings to a story. With the best villains, I'm always asking, who does these things? Or, under the best of circumstances, how did he or she even think of doing that? I think mystery is less important for a villain unless you're working on a series. (With any kind of a continuing effort, it's even possible to hide the identity of the chief antagonist through the use of minions.)

You depend upon the villain to make things rough for the hero, and the villain depends upon you to allow that. I've been told that much comedy is driven by anger and contempt. And murder mysteries often begin with the desire by the writer to knock off an enemy. If you can summon such feelings within yourself, you'll have a simpler time letting your villains be as bad as they can be. If that's not easy for you, it might be useful to focus on what you owe this child of your imagination. The villain you created should be allowed to be everything you meant him or her to be. Try to be helpful. If you can't, then at least get out of the villain's way.

In my experience, most writers don't want to be identified with their villains. As a matter fact, they don't want to be identified with any embarrassing or nasty behaviors in their works. Inevitably, this happens. It's a risk you need to accept. In fact, it's very common for readers to ask writers if they had the same experiences, did the same things, and felt the same ways as specific characters, including villains. They also asked if they really are one of the characters in their stories.

Some writers go to great lengths to deny any real-world connections with characters, opinions, and events in their stories. It's fiction! Don't you get that?

But there is some commonality with all characters, and you can't stop people from jumping to conclusions on what is shared. The best reaction I've seen to this truth is a woman who writes a lot about sex and, even though I presume it's not true, constantly startles her readers with the answer, yes, I did do that. In fact, I've done everything you've read about in my books. Good for her. I suspect her readers know as much about the truth as the readers of those whose favorite authors constantly deny connections, but she definitely has a lot more fun.

So go to the dark side (in your imagination) with the bad guys in your stories. People assume he did anyway.

Overall, I think villains are more fun to connect with then heroes. In the next post, I'll explore the space in between, secondary characters.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 2 - Probing your hero until it hurts

Connecting with your characters can deepen your stories and keep you writing. Last time, I posted nine dimensions to consider, and here we'll go into the details with the protagonist in mind.

The biggest problem with building a connection with your protagonist is really getting to know him or her. Often, the protagonist has a lot in common with the writer, but even well-developed and individuated heroes and heroines are likely to feel familiar. After all, the writer wants readers to identify with protagonists, so sympathy as well as empathy is probably existed before the opening lines with written. And the protagonist gets a pass on probing analysis.

Often, it gets worse. The identification is so strong that the kind of test (good writers torture characters) that might reveal characters are avoided or mitigated.

Familiarity and identification mean that writers need to be deliberate and determined before they can truly know protagonists well enough to bond with them. Nick Lowe got it right (for stories, not friendships): "You've gotta be cruel to be kind."  So prepare to go through hell with your protagonist.
  • Investment - I recommend taking a visual approach to this. Consider a series of still photographs or a silent movie of your protagonist doing something (preferably physical) with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can imagine yourself participating, even better. So perhaps, you'll arm wrestle with your hero or cut in at a dance with your heroine. Then push this, by making the action unpleasant. A trip to the dentist would work. Or terrifying -- getting mugged. Three of these shared experiences will tell you a lot about your main character.
  • Communication - Now they can open their mouths. Warm your protagonist up. Get his or her confidence. Then say, "Tell me about your most embarrassing moment." Whatever they respond, follow up with a probing question. Make it open-ended, so they can't get away with a simple yes or no.
  • Commonality - This one is probably easy with the protagonist, and that's fine. You both went to the same college? Are baseball fans? Good. But see if you also share less admirable experiences in your own life (getting arrested? bullying a sibling?). Or list out your guilty pleasures and see if these appeal to your protagonist, too.
  • Concern - Yes. You already care about your character. Note that. Then imagine the worst thing that might happen to him or her (either in or beyond the current story) and spend some time worrying about these happening and imagining the feelings that would result.
  • Tolerance - By now, darker aspects of your hero or heroine (or maybe yourself) should be evident. Don't be afraid. Don't be judgmental. Forgive. Respect. Things will all turn out okay in the end.
  • Reliability - Has the core of your character changed? Is the reason he or she was chosen as the story's protagonist no longer valid? Take another look. Sit with it a while. See if you need to tweak. And remember you can always create a new protagonist, use this one in a different story, or turn the character who was supposed to be the hero into a villain. (This last could be a great move that takes your story to a higher level.)
  • Surprise/Mystery - This usually comes out in the writing. And the best way I know to evoke it with a protagonist -- the character you are most likely to believe you know in and out -- is to make a list of ten to twenty possible responses to a story challenge. The one that is the most shocking, that you never would have guessed your character would have done, may be your best choice. Be open to the possibility. (And, of course, if surprising options pop up spontaneously, don't dismiss them. Even when they seem crazy.)
  • Mutual dependence - This is the part that often falls away for plotters. The main character just goes through the motions. But it's the emotions that count. Your protagonist owes you more than this. Make sure he or she pays back your diligence in providing the best story you can with true responses. If you and your characters avoid being vulnerable and counting on each other, your readers will be cheated.
  • Shared work/risk - Doubt can be a killer for a writer. Or a wonderful tool. It is when things could go wrong (or seem to be going wrong) in the story that you and the characters need to work together. The scenes you struggle with are the ones that force you and your main character to explore more deeply and take chances on. These are the scenes that make or break your story and establish the strongest relationships with your heroes and heroines. Strive together. Be unflinching in the face of disaster.
Okay, I didn't say this ahead of time, but putting your character through some of these exercises puts you through tough experiences, too. So do the work, then do something nice for yourself. Writers who go into dark places with characters they love need to build healthy self-care resources and to indulge in them. Keep yourself sane. Keep writing fun.

Next week, the villains -- which should be less painful.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bonding with Your Story's Characters 1 - Nine ways to deepen your connections

I spent this last weekend with writers, and I learned more about their heroes, heroines, and villains than their loved ones. That makes sense, right? Writers, caught up with the characters who are dominating of their current manuscripts, should have them top of mind.

But it occurred to me that I often end up talking with non-writers about characters from their favorite novels, movies, and television shows. It can get pathological, I suppose, but it makes sense that people are devoted to their fictional friends. They often know more about these characters than they do about loved ones, especially in the cases of novels and short stories where they get glimpses of thoughts, unfiltered.

I feel my own strongest stories are where I get to know my characters inside and out. In fact, I'm often driven to keep writing stories when things aren't going well -- I'm stuck, the emotions are difficult, I can't solve a plot problem, my opinion of the story is at a low, or words aren't flowing -- because of my familiarity with the characters. Because I have bonded with the characters. Often to the point where they are talking to me and won't be turned away.

Except when you have something urgent in real life, being bonded to your story's characters is an advantage. And, although the bonding can happen immediately -- at first sight? -- for me, it usually is the result of imagining a lot of scenes, working through chapters, or deliberately interviewing characters.

Friends of mine bond by other means. Some can take an abstract worksheet (age, eye color, place in family, education, etc.) and assemble the details so they draw breath. Others, who have powerful visual imaginations, clip pictures from magazines and put together characters that way. (Remember how Truman in The Truman Show reconstructed the image of his true love, Sylvia?) Many writers base their characters on people they've met or composites of real people.

Knowing a character and learning enough so that character comes to life on the page is an achievement, but I think bonding with a character can take more. How do we, as writers connect on a level where it is impossible to turn away? Where are time is given generously? Where we'll stretch our imaginations? Where we'll do whatever is necessary to give our characters the best (stories) and won't be satisfied with anything less than excellence?

I've looked over some of the elements of real life bonding, and I've thought about these in terms of story characters:
  • Investment - The more time, energy, and imagination we put into a relationship, the more likely an intense bond will result. This is the point behind courtship, right? And, ideally, parents invest in their kids to the point where an intense, unbreakable connection is formed.
  • Communication - I interview characters repeatedly as I work on a book or a script. And, when they  whisper in my ear unbidden, I listen. 
  • Commonality - How often to you meet new people and probe to find out if they know people you know, have visited or lived in places you're familiar with, have professional connections, or just shared interests? If you deliberately find out how what you have in common with your characters, it will help you to connect with them. 
  • Concern - I don't know how you write a story where you don't, personally, care about what the protagonist goes through or how he or she ends up. And, while you probably aren't rooting for your villain's success, caring about him or her can create a valuable bond. I'll add that developing empathy, so you can share the emotional highs and lows of characters, can add to the power of a story. I often will revisit a scene and make a point of re-experiencing the conflict through a different character.
  • Tolerance - If you don't have characters whose views and values you don't share, your story will lack dimension. And, if you can only see your points of disagreement, you'll never connect with characters who are different in fundamental ways from you.
  • Reliability - Characters need to have some stable traits and values, even to the point of predictability. While the best stories usually have characters who go through important changes, they remain, fundamentally, the same people at the end.
  • Surprise/Mystery - At the same time, if your main characters don't surprise readers from time to time and are completely transparent, they'll be boring. Secrets are good. And, though the writer should know a lot more than the readers, I think there is a great benefit to having characters who surprise and fail to cooperate with the writers on occasion. This makes the writer/character relationship more interesting. And it creates healthy curiosity.
  • Mutual dependence - My characters rely on me to tell their stories with respect and authenticity. I depend on them to choose, act, and feel.
  • Shared work/risk - Few things pull people together more than working together and facing common risks. I watch to see if my characters are pushing hard to participate in my stories, including going to extremes. I strive not to go halfway in the work of creating all aspects of the experience readers will have to they can participate in the lives of the characters, something my best characters demand. And I make it personal, taking the risk of revealing myself, taking chances with difficult material, and experimenting with storytelling techniques.
I hope this list intrigues you. I'll explore it in future posts, giving examples of how it applies to protagonists, villains, and secondary characters. I'll also share some of the open-ended questions I use to connect more deeply with my characters.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 5 - Dare to have a bad guy

Nobody wants to be the bad guy. That includes the writer. This may be why I see fewer of what I’d call old-time villains, who wreak havoc in stories without becoming monsters, in contemporary films and books.

Historically, a lot of antagonists have been members of out groups. When I was a kid, anyone other than a straight WASP — including American Indians, Asians, Blacks, Italians, Gays, Nazis and Irish — made an acceptable villain. You can find all of them in noir films, TV westerns, and cartoons. Today, if you look at that list, only Nazis are still fair game, and it's safe to say that terrorists of any sort can show up in a story and be booed with impunity. Mostly.

One trick writers have used to hang onto some former go-to villains is to have someone of the same ethnicity on the side of the good guys. (See folks, we aren’t bigots. Look, we know some of “those people” are good.)

The legacy of bigotry is enough, in and of itself, to make a writer reluctant to create a villain.

At the other end of the spectrum is the explained villain. A writer, who doesn’t really believe it him/herself, cooks up a cliche Freudian reason for the bad behavior. It’s a segmented sort of insanity. Yes, the writer has an excuse and can point to it, but that does not make the story less disappointing. It's easy to see why writers avoid this path.

An approach to this problem that’s in between is the antihero. Sometimes these are characters who do the right thing because is serves their own selfish interests (or more likely because they have a selfish excuse for doing the right thing, and so don’t see themselves as being “suckers”). Han Solo more or less fits this type and ends up being a hero, despite himself. But I think it’s notable that Han is flanked by a traditional hero, Luke, and an old-time villain, Darth Vader.

I guess it could be said that the Godfather’s Michael Corleone is an antihero. He’s certainly the story’s protagonist. I see him as a tragic figure who is corrupted by circumstances — mainly a society that is even more broken and flawed than his criminal family.

Science fiction and fantasy helped social critics (and their ideas) make it through the McCarthy era safely. And, as long as the pixies and aliens don’t look too much like contemporary groups, these genres can provide rich and safe opportunities for villains. The problem comes in when the worlds these creatures live in are too distant from our own or the nature moves so far from human that it becomes easier to think of these villains as monsters than reflections of ourselves.

To me, the answer to restoring villainy is bringing authenticity to the work. I’ve tried to present some of the approaches to this, such as reflecting the hero or just going to extremes when faced with an intolerable loss or insult, in previous posts. That provides a “how,” but writers still need to have the courage to present villains that will be unacceptable portrayals to some readers or audience members no matter what. As soon as an antagonist is fleshed out enough for people to identify with, the negative aspects will be taken personally.

Good villains get under people’s skin. Writers who present good villains will be attacked.

Which brings us to the “why.” Why create characters that irritate people when you can always soften them or make them into monsters? The answer is villains are necessary if you want to make the most of many story concepts.

All you need to do to prove this to yourself is to list ten of your favorite villains. In fact, you probably can make the case just by listing ten to twenty of your favorite stories. The best argument for daring to make really bad villains is right in front of you — in the movies you’ve watched and the books you've read, over and over again.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 4 - Rousing the beast

I watched a Dragnet episode from the 50s recently, and it starred Lee Marvin as the villain. He was, by far, the most interesting character I ever saw on the show -- part of regular viewing with my dad in it's 60s incarnation.

Marvin took standard Dragnet comments and presented them in fresh ways. He somehow drew Detective Friday into a fist fight (though it was somewhat unconvincing). Also, he was on the screen though almost all the show. That and the culprit's earning a trip to the gas chamber stand out as unique in all my Dragnet viewing. 

The character was a serial killer who was more angry about how society pumped up murder as something special than he was upset in any way by his victims. He barely cared about money he gained. He wasn't especially angry with them or envious. He didn't seem to be thrilled by the process of murder. And he didn't kill to get even or find justice.

I am not a fan of villains as forces of nature without motivation, but I was fascinated by this story, which played out in less than 20 minutes. Was this character just a killing machine with no human dimensions?

The episode contained some of the obligatory psychiatric tropes of the time -- a dream of victims and a report of dissociative behavior-- but I think the answer was away from the main plot. Instead of looking at the police working to put the story of a murder together and get their suspect to confess, the payoff was in murderer's interest in food. 

He was always hungry and particular about what he ate. He even agreed to provide information on where a body was buried once they took him to a favorite, vegetarian restaurant. And he kept his promise, but much of the scene, which revealed a lot about the scope of his murders, was focused on appreciation of the food.

Here's the thing: he was as much wrapped up with sharing his eating experience and appreciation of the bread, the beets, etc., as he was with the murders and his disappointment that people got all that wrong. He could not connect with the importance others put on murder, but he was desperate to connect in a way he thought might work -- a good meal.

Trying to connect on that level with Friday and his partner -- on whom the trip to such an exotic and wonderful restaurant was wasted (both got cheese sandwiches) -- brought tragedy. The serial killer was truly isolated and alone, and he always would be.

Apocryphal story: Marvin was asked how he created such brilliant villains. His answer was that he never played a villain.

It is valuable to look to see how a story is catalyzed, what puts things in motion. For protagonists, that's all about finding the inciting incident (which can occur before the novel or movie begins, but often is in the first act). But it's valuable to see what puts villains in motion, too. What happened that made the antagonist behave in an antisocial way and, in particular, oppose the protagonist?

In the Dragnet episode, I have to presume the villain was so lonely he looked for connection through murder. This is subtle and difficult to portray unless you have a Lee Marvin at hand. But there are more accessible and more easily portrayed catalysts for villainous action.

Betrayal can set off an antagonist. Being turned into the police, left for dead, or not defended by a friend when insulted, slandered, or abused -- any of these can make a villain focus on revenge against an individual or that person's friends and relatives (no matter how innocent). Having a target be a sympathetic hero is usually enough, but, as I stated in the second post in this series, it's valuable to have the reaction by the villain be disproportionate. Make "making things right" go out of control.

Putting a scare into a character can turn one into a villain. None of us wants to lose what we value. A threat to power, in particular, can lead to bad behavior. History is littered with kings who executed (or had executed) potential claimants to the throne, including innocent children. But the cause can be as simple as having someone the villain imagines loves him or her show interest in the protagonist. Since the hero's success could draw away a loved one, the antagonist must take all steps necessary to make the hero fail.

Similarly, when a character will only feel complete if the treasure or person he or she wants in attained, the person who has it may be dehumanized and marked for destruction. The same thing is true if knowledge is a problem and the villain needs to hide his or her guilt. There's a Bible story that has both of these. Once King David got Uriah's wife pregnant, the soldier was marked by the King, which ultimately led to his death.

The prospect of defeat, especially when the villain sees his or her vulnerability, can push the character into unfair behavior, often expressed as "evening the odds" in a competition. I love it when the villain is the only one who sees and understands the great talent the hero has. A scene where the hero innocently reveals the talent and doesn't even realize he or she has done so -- and thus creates a formidable enemy -- can be a highlight in a story. And the superior position of the reader or audience can make that scene irresistible.

One more thing to explore -- the context of rousing the beast. If you create such a scene consider the following:
  • How to make sure what happens is important to the villain and the readers/audience knows this.
  • Not having the villain reveal him or herself. I like it when the antagonist does not appear to be powerful (like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield).
  • If possible, use emotional triggers that have been established in the story or that are universal.
  • Create more impact by setting it up with mood (comic relief can precede a catalytic event and double it's emotional effect) or setting (a betrayal on the antagonist's home grounds, say the family dinner table, or in a place with imagery, like a church).
Yes, there are plenty of villains who need no catalyst. They are "compelled" or their reason is "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." But it's worth exploring the opportunity to find more.







Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 3 - Who's bad?

I favor villains of some complexity. Creating a monster is much too easy. And less engaging for a story.

I was binge-watching a TV series, and a villain showed up with lots of power, a clear flaw (greed),  a philosophy that hinted at a sophisticated worldview, and evil henchmen. He also seemed to be pretty smart. Though he did not show up again in the episode after his introduction, I knew I had not seen the last of him. And I had hope.

Sure enough, he popped up a few episodes later in the season.

Great! Get the popcorn.

But all he turned out to be was a hero-torturing monster. Sigh. (Even worse, his evil henchmen were inept, and their security measures failed completely.)

The villain escaped. I don't care to see him again. And that is the problem with monsters in general and unimpressive ones in particular.

So... the first rule on a villain. Make him, her, or it (but not them) a worthy adversary. Even actual non-human monsters, can reach that level if there is real doubt about the hero's victory. This means providing a demonstration of huge physical power (King Kong), unpredictability (The Thing), a special talent/skill/power (almost any comic villain). Show a tough opponent being beaten.

Now, to go beyond this kind of a monster with humans, I think intelligence is necessary. It is too simple for a reader or an audience member to imagine a fool being beaten. This does not mean the villain can't hide his/her capabilities. Uriah Heep is all the more loathsome because he pretends to be humble and subservient. And it's always fun to have a master villain pretending to be a minion, putting his/her second out front as a shield or bait. Surprises are always welcome.

People are always looking for how the hero might triumph, and it is harder to triumph over a smart villain so don't loose tension by making the bad guy/gal a fool.

As I've written before, Damon Knight advised having a ratio of about 70/30 good to bad for protagonists and the opposite ratio for villains. I'll take that further on villains. It is pure gold to have a villain people can really hate. But the gold gets transformed into platinum when there is a piece of them readers or audience members love and connect with.

As with heroes, talent, humor, and having been wronged can help us to connect with a villain. I think there is also value to exposing doubt in a villain. Or compassion for their foes. Or past good done. Or one wrong turn that set them on an evil course. When I see myself in a villain, when I think, "There but for the grace of God go I," the appeal jumps. Darth Vader, not Godzilla.

Story-wise, making elements of the villain reflect elements of the hero enriches their conflict. It shows the duality of powerful human traits. And, if the hero sees him/herself in the villain, that brings everything up another notch. Then we have the character we are identifying with wondering about what's right and wrong, what's good or bad. And it's personal, leading to a necessary look inside and a reevaluation.

One more thought -- this on the "wrong" turn. Certainly, a promising character can become a villain because of a trauma. Have the most talented kid in the community first witness the deaths of family members and then be kidnapped, abused, a brought up in a crude and ruthless community, and you have a super villain. Loss, deprivation, isolation, and injustice to a vulnerable individual can turn out badly. Good, but perhaps too simple.

I think exploring corruption provides more of a payoff. There are amplifiers that reveal character. Think of celebrities and powerful people who have been caught taking a vice to its limits. Think especially of those who have touched our hearts or braved adversity or made us laugh or gained a victory at great personal sacrifice for human rights -- and then shocked and disappointed us. In almost every case they have been corrupted by amplifiers. Wealth. Power. Fame. Honors. The social gifts that delay, diminish, or destroy accountability.

Lead us not into temptation. Perhaps it means don't put me into a position that amplifies my weaknesses by making me unaccountable. Don't give me gifts that corrupt my character.

But, as a writer and a creator of villains (and, to an extent heroes), it may be your job to corrupt promising and outstanding characters. It seems evil, but, with villains such as these, you can develop exquisite human moments within you story. 

Next time, I'll continue this exploration of villains with motivation, how to rouse them to extreme action.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Writer’s Productivity Quiz - Good habits, bad habits

Okay, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. Here’s an unscientific quiz aimed at helping writers identify what habits they might build or break to become more productive. This is based on my providing guidance for about 1,000 writers over the past few years and many more conversations over the past few decades. Many of the answers represent what I’ve heard from authors at all levels of success.

What's the best way to use this quiz? Pay attention to a) your insights and b) what makes you feel uncomfortable. The total score is less important.

1) How often do you write?

A. Almost every day, at least 30 minutes.

B. Five days a week, at least 15 minutes.

C. When I'm inspired or irregularly.

D. I haven't put time in on a serious work in progress in a year or more.
2) I edit as I go.

A. Never.

B. Only the last scene, then I work forward.

C. I get a scene/chapter "right" before I move on.

D. I just can’t leave what’s written alone. I may go back to the early chapters over and over again before I complete a draft.

3) Here’s what counts as my “writing time” …

A. Composing and editing done on my work in progress.

B. Marketing and working on my author website or relevant social media in addition to my composing an entity.

C. Any time my fingers touch the keyboard.

D. I don't keep track of my writing time in any way.

4) In my time dedicated to editing…

A. I make separate passes, from macro to micro, that is, big story issues to the minutia of spelling and grammar.

B. I check the story against my outline or treatment, then I do a pass with automatic checks for style, grammar, and spelling so I can stand to look at it. Then a couple more passes to make it consistent, smooth, and polished.

C. I try to catch everything at once, so there is a second pass and a polish before it goes to market.

D. I fix things that bother me

5) In preparing to write…

A. I have everything set up and ready before my scheduled session begins, including having a good idea of what I'll be writing or which editing task I intend to complete.

B. I’ve got my coffee and my tools (paper and pencil, laptop, etc.), but, if I'm composing I always read the last scene I've written — depending on that to launch me into the draft — rather than have a definite plan.

C. I have a place, my tools, the time, and I know which manuscript I’ll be working on.

D. There’s no planning or setting up. I dip in and out  of the manuscript when the mood suits me for as long as I stay interested.

6) When I work, I usually…

A. Move through my writing at a steady clip, rather than pausing for long periods or indulging in distractions.

B. Will take a deep breath or briefly pace if the words stop, but I'll skip ahead or use some other strategy if the pause gets too long.

C. Allow my mind to wander, may work on another project, or may do research if the words stop flowing.

D. Wait for inspiration.

7) When I lack a word or a fact or don't remember an incident from my story…

A. I keep going, using brackets and place holding words (like bagel), making sure that I fix these within 24 hours.

B. I stop, find the answer, then resume I writing.

C. I stop to find answers, but frequently don't get back to the writing because of distractions.

D. This doesn't affect me much because most the time I'm busy building my ideas folder.

8) To keep the act of writing from hurting my health, I…

A. Schedule in times to stretch and hydrate no less than once an hour, and I take advantage of technologies like standing desks and dictation software.

B. Listen to my body and take it easy on myself when I start to feel stress, aching joints, or sore muscles.

C. Limit myself to a definite number of shots of whiskey per session.

D. Get medical help, e.g, physical therapy or detoxing, once I complete a project.

9) To help me improve my approach, explore new techniques, keep focused, and understand how I work I…

A. Track my participation through things like word count, time spent, and scenes edited, and also maintain a process journal.

B. Collect articles and give myself a word count goal.

C. Use writing techniques that feel right at the time.

D. Trust the force.


This quiz is not exhaustive, and the score doesn’t matter as much as what may be revealed by taking the test, but here goes…

Give yourself 4 points for each A, 3 for each B, 2 for each C and 1 for each D.

If your total score is 28-36, you are a productive writer with great discipline and habits.

If you ended up with 19-27, you are working at the level of many professionals and probably have good enough work habits to achieve many of your goals.

For those with 9-18, you have demonstrated dedication to the craft. If your productivity pleases you, you may not want to make any changes. If not, you may wish to explore opportunities to add good habits and break some bad ones.

Lower scores may just mean you have your own way of doing things that works for you. No problem there. But if you are frustrated with your productivity and the score confirms that for you, it might be good to dedicate some time to understand what’s getting in your way and make some changes.

Whatever score you got, I hope you had some fun. As always, I welcome questions and comments.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 2 - Motivations

When you have a monster as the villain in your story, motivation is unnecessary. The beast can be considered a force of nature, a killing machine. Similarly, a lot of the human monsters, like serial killers, don't need a motivation. They are different from the rest of us, and we can watch their violence with complete belief. As with hurricanes and death-dealing meteorites, we may feel fear, desperation, and anxiety, but we won't feel any empathy.

As I've been digging into villains, many of them do inspire empathy — to the point of becoming tragic heroes, like the original King Kong. Watching one of the first Have Gun - Will Travel episodes, it occurred to me I still worried about the villain, Manfred Holt, long after the story was finished.

Here was a gunslinger who had killed eight men, but he escaped cleverly, cared about his wife and child, was articulate, saved the hero from certain death when he could've gotten away, and held to his own code. He never shot an unarmed man.

The problem was, the slightest offense would lead him to violence, and he gave no consideration for men whose skills with a gun were far below his own. When asked why he didn't just scale his outrage to a fistfight, he said he wasn't very good at fighting that way. Even so, might have escaped the consequences of his actions if he'd been willing to promise he wouldn't hunt down and kill a man who had been a witness against him. He couldn't do that. It would be a lie.

So, even with the kind of villain that is usually reduced to a cartoon, complexity can be worked in, resulting in a memorable character. (Of course, it didn't hurt that Manfred was played by Charles Bronson.)

So, one motivation that can work for a villain is a distorted and inflexible sense of honor.

Another motivation that can create a memorable villain is the need for completion of some sort. This may be tied to a humiliation or a vendetta or an ancient wound. The idea that a group of people must pay for a historical wrong (mistreatment of family members, taking of land, or impoverishment) can drive a villain to what they see as vigilante justice. This can resonate with views of wars between people and provide insights about the human drive for revenge.

Now, the hero might have this kind of motivation, too, but villains usually add a distorting ripple by either making it a grudge that reaches too far into the past or by delivering punishment to an innocent person or meting out punishment that is disproportional.

Trickier is a villain motivated seek to still the voices in his/her head. It needs to be tied to a trauma with which the audience can identify, and often must be presented to them with some immediacy. Again, it must be clear that the victims are innocent or the attacks are out of proportion to the suffering. Getting the balance on the latter right can be very difficult.

The villain may be acting out of loneliness or the need to love. Consider a woman who has been widowed, left without the love of her life. For her to become a stalker, perhaps based on misinterpreting a kindness, could create a distinct and engaging villain.



When the villain is taking on an organization or society so as to be heard, particularly after having made reasonable attempts, people are likely to have empathy, especially if they have had similar experience of exclusion and dismissal. But the direction of the evil acts must be toward representatives who don't deserve the punishment.

Of course, the old standby of any of the seven deadly sins (especially greed) out of control in an otherwise charming person can make for a strong villain. But work is necessary if you want a villain as compelling as Manfred. If a villain goes after a rich person for a small portion of their wealth so that he/she can pay for a child's operation, the balance might shift toward the villain. But explore and test until you find the place near middle point where readers can almost can see the villain's side.




Likability can help gain empathy. Talent and humor can make any character more likable. Even someone as horrible as Hannibal Lector.

Once a good motivation is thought through, it must be presented with human moments. This is often done in good films where just the look on the villain's face tells you that he or she is feeling for the opponent or reconsidering the action or briefly overwhelmed by regret. In novels, too often the writers try and build the case with back story or dialogue alone. Creating a reader experience that is in the moment and based on a gesture that exposes the inner life of the villain is a better way to do the job.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Villains for Your Stories 1 - Getting under your skin

Villains have become a problem… For writers. I realized this as I was binging my way through old TV series. On some of the oldest shows, like Have Gun, Will Travel and Route 66, the bad guys really got under my skin in a way the antagonists in more recent programs never did. For some good reasons — like the rejection of offensive stereotypes – and some bad reasons – like a hesitancy to present truly bad behavior as as morally bad rather than morally ambiguous — I think some writers pull their punches when they create villains.

There's plenty of room for antiheroes. They been as successful part of literature at least since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it might be time to revive some good old-fashioned villains that we can boo.

By that I don't mean creating melodramatic, all-bad characters. We do do too much of that already with monsters, aliens, and historical villains like Nazis. So giving the bad guys positive trains is fine. Similarly, it's okay – I would say essential – to have heroes who are flawed in important ways. But what's the value of a hero's flaw if the villain doesn't take advantage of it?

So here's a recommendation: create villains who will not hesitate to push against and use the greatest weaknesses or failures of character that a protagonist has. Not only does this create powerful conflict, with which readers can identify, but it makes the character arc, where the protagonist undergoes substantial and believable change, possible.

I mentioned that these villains got under my skin. I think I know why. During the stories, they caused real harm. The harm was (mostly) undeserved and certainly out of proportion. And the damage they did continued to get worse over time. As with an action film, where escalation is a requirement for audience engagement, making a bad guy do worse and worse things as the story progresses can bring out the instinct in readers or viewers to protect. Here I was, in the case of Have Gun, Will Travel, unable to stay in my chair for most of the shows because I felt such an urgency to stop the bad guy. And this response not was accomplished in a two hour movie. It was achieved in just 25 minutes. I have to tip my hat to writers who were able to do that week after week (39 episodes in season one!).

In many of the stories, there were people who could not defend themselves. They really had almost no chance. That helped to underline a very important aspect of some of the best villains. They have power. They demonstrate that power repeatedly during the story. And they create real doubt about whether the protagonist can succeed against them. In fact, in most of the stories that worked well, the hero suffered an important defeat. (This wasn't always done well. One 1950s series I watched repeatedly had the hero ambushed, clunked on the head, and tied up. I really came to wonder why he was such a dope that he didn't know enough to be vigilant as he walked down dark streets or rode his horse into canyons.)

So, an aptitude for finding exploiting flaws, an escalation of actions that cause harm, and the exercise of power all seem to be important to building these engaging villains. It's probable that many of your favorite antagonists (Darth Vader? Gordon Gecko? Hannibal Lector?) illustrate these points. But building a villain also means creating compelling reasons for their evil behaviors. What are their motivations?

We'll get into that next time as I continue this series on bad guys. In the meantime you might want to check out some of the posts I've done in the past that looked at villains.
Villains and the status quo
Crazy, bad villains
Disturb me

Why am I doing this? I'm deeply involved) creating a series of short dramas, under 30 minutes each, so I'm working to understand compressed storytelling and the roles of all the characters, including the villains, and how the best writers make these tales compelling.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Secrets of Fiction 3 - How to turn the story

Oedipus was competent, confident, and clever. He outwitted the Sphinx and knew he had managed to dodge fate (which said he would murder his father and bed his mother). But there were a few things he didn’t know. Like he was adopted. As the truth is revealed, he is tragically brought down. Such is the power of secrets.

Ishmael does one thing against his better judgment when he boards the Pequod. He doesn’t insist on getting a chance to size up the whaling ship’s captain. In fact, he doesn’t see Ahab’s face until the vessel is out to sea and it is too late to change his plans. And, other than the rants of a pesky oracle, it’s all a surprise to him.

Almost any romantic comedy you can think up turns on a secret that must be revealed before true love can find a way.

Okay. As you may have guessed, I’ve turned back to secrets after leaving them alone for a few years. Why? Because I’ve been reviewing some of my works to see how I can tune them up, and, over and over again, I’ve found hidden knowledge of what sort or another can add power.

But not every secret makes a story better. To really do the job a secret:
  • Must be significant in and of itself. If it doesn’t mean something to the reader and the characters, it can’t do its magic.
  • Must not be obvious, if readers don’t know. No one likes to guess the killer three chapters before the end of a mystery.
  • Must suggest real consequences, if readers do know. They should worry about what will happen when the truth comes out.
  • Must recast or explain what has gone before. Whether they clarify a motive or change the meaning of a comment or turn the whole story, they need to reach into the past and create new meaning and/or  bring the theme to life.
  • Must suggest “if only” scenarios. Readers should be able to imagine changes along the way that might have effected the final outcome. This is especially true with bittersweet or tragic endings.
  • Must be kept for an important reason. The reason can be wrong and may be tied to a misunderstanding, but the person keeping a secret must be strongly motivated and forced to extremes to protect the secret.
In addition, the keeping of secrets impacts relationships (and often how characters see themselves). As secrets are held, the have a corrosive effect, creating doubt and distrust.

Under the best of circumstances, it is the secret the transforms the story, creating resets on the lives of the characters and dramatically changing their fortunes.

One of the best ways to understand and appreciate secrets is to think of favorite stories with endings that you love. Chances are that most of these have surprises that matter in the last act (if not the last scene). Do any of these reflect what’s in my list of Musts? Do they illustrate the impact of secrets on relationships?

Want to use the power of secrets in you own story? Try this. Think of five secrets that your protagonist might go to extremes to keep. Think of five secrets that might put power into the antagonists hands. Think of the most important assumptions in your story and what would happen if any of them were turned on its head.

If any of these make your story better, you now have a secret to better writing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Writer's To Be Read Pile - Novels and nonfiction

I don't know how you can be a writer without being a reader. Some people try it, and perhaps some are successful. But most accomplished writers that I know seem to swallow libraries whole and to have To Be Read stacks that reach to the ceiling.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, reading should be on your priority list. Stephen King says so. This time, I'll look at reading in more detail.

To begin with, let's acknowledge that books should lead the way. If you are writing books or even scripts of any length, most of your answers to your most difficult problems have been worked out by other authors. While you might find good prose in magazines and newspapers (along with a lot of appalling uses of words), books are the only place you'll find big answers. Like what?
  • How to maintain reader interest over hundreds of pages. 
  • How to create a satisfying character arc. 
  • How to interweave plots and subplots. 
  • How to eke out loads of information in powerful and engaging ways.
Novels provide models on how to immerse readers for hours and hours. They create characters whose heads you can get into and whose lives become part of your own. They create worlds like Middle Earth and revive societies like Tudor England that encourage people to enter and reenter.

You might be wondering what the differences between works of fiction (most of what I've covered so far) and absorbing films, like the Star Wars series, and television shows, like Breaking Bad. Films and television, especially for those who delve into the scripts on which they are based, have a lot to offer the writer. Storytelling and characterization both come alive in these media. However, viewers are different from readers, and the experiences and lessons of film and television are usually incomplete and obscured because so much of the final work of art depends upon others (actors, directors, designers, composers, sound engineers, cinematographers, etc.).

So, have near the top of your To Be Read pile novels. Make them an important part of your diet. Personally, I always have at least one novel in progress. And I tend to alternate between classic works (usually from the 19th century) and contemporary works. I make a point of throwing in wildcard novels from time to time so I see what's happening in other genres.

Poetry has made its way back into my life. Primarily, I listen to readings. I have the great pleasure of hearing a number of poets read their work at Bread Loaf last summer, but YouTube and The Sonnet Project provide excellent sources for a regular (and painless) infusion. You might set yourself a target of, say, listening to one of Shakespeare's sonnets each day at lunch time. (When I actually put a book of poetry into my hands, I read it the first time to myself, and then make sure I read it out loud.)

Nonfiction reading is standard for research, but I'm a big believer in having much of it be driven by curiosity. Scientific ideas, including social sciences, can give you more to say when you're writing. Histories — especially when you read contrasting views about the same incidents or historical periods — provide perspectives on how the world ask, the role of chance, and the consequences of bad decisions.

The best biographies revealed how people work and can extend your view of how extreme their choices can be. They provide some of the best ways to understand gut level how complex humans are.

I could go on for a long time, but let me close by endorsing writing books. I've already mentioned Stephen King's On Writing. Robert McKee's Story should be on your shelf. Jack Bickham provided some of the best help on nuts and bolts. And I like almost any writing book that focuses on interviews with working writers. The current favorite of mine is The TV Showrunner's Roadmap.

That's it. I'd love to hear what you feel belongs on a serious writers to be read pile. Ultimately, what reread shapes us. As humans as well as writers. So keep reading a priority and never stop challenging yourself with typical works.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Writer's Perfect Day - Scheduling your tasks

Imagine your calendar is clear and you can spend whatever time you wish working as a writer. Create a list of activities. It probably will include some time for drafting new pages, adding to your story. If you're like me, and you have a lot of projects that need attention, you might also spend time on revision. I also regularly get involved excavating through files of notes, ideas, titles, and unfinished manuscripts – often uncovering some surprises. Research might be added. Connections with other people might be added.

Stephen King pointedly reminds writers that they need to be readers, so that probably gets on this list, too. And I think that no matter where you are in your writing career it's important to keep yourself fresh with education, exercises, and conferences.

Certainly, some time would need to be dedicated to career planning, exploring opportunities, pitching, and marketing. Reasonably, it's good to schedule some "oops" time because things don't always go as planned. For me, plotting and outlining tends to be a separate, dedicated activity, which could come before drafting or after I've spewed out the first draft.

This has become quite a long list of activities, and I invite you to consider how you would prioritize these items and what time you would dedicate toward each. You also may have some items you care about that I missed here. Go ahead and add them. Or you might want to slice up my items, such as revision, into smaller pieces like story development, scene analysis, and ferreting out typos.

When you have a your list done, you'll probably see more than can be done in one day. You may wish to look at a full month and see how a perfect month might play out for you with these activities assigned to different times and days. My recommendation would be that you put together a perfect day, just for fun. Then put together a perfect week, which would be good to take more seriously.

So now you've taken a blank week and populated it with the jobs you need to do as a writer. Feel free to fill up every available hour or to stick to the bare minimum — 15 minutes of drafting per day, five days a week (based on my experience with people I've mentored). I hope you feel pretty good about it. I hope it makes time for the efforts you've prioritized and chosen. (You can check out more about making good decisions on where to put your efforts in the writer's decisions series I just completed.)



I hope it looks to you like the kind of schedule that would make all your dreams as a writer possible.

I suspect, that as good as this may look, you still have a problem with the schedule – the rest of your life. Many things intrude -- day jobs, family, household work, health, and more. Presuming you done a good job as far as your fantasy schedule, now you have time to put together a week (or day) with achievable tasks. So the next step is to go back to a blank week and populated with commitments that can't be avoided. Usually this begins with boxing out time for work or school. If you have regular medical appointments, you probably can't trade them off. So make sure all the absolutely untouchable things (church on Sunday for me) are marked down in indelible ink.

Other tasks may offer more flexibility. You want to take advantage of that so you can shift things around to take advantage of your golden hours. For me that means drafting in the morning and revising the early afternoon. So you might want to shift the time or day for that phone call with your daughter or trade-off the days on which your responsible for dinner.

Your week is beginning to fill up. In all likelihood, you feel a level of frustration because this calendar leaves out activities on your ideal calendar or doesn't provide enough time for work you care about.

The good news is that you probably do see more opportunities for writing related work than you imagined. How do you get more time? Having things scheduled and working more efficiently will immediately provide more productive time, so you've already taken an important step. You may also see that there are big open areas that normally capture web surfing, television, and sleep. To an extent, these may be negotiable. How much are you willing to sacrifice for your writing career?

Also, looking at your original list of tasks and those that didn't make it into the one-week schedule, consider putting some of these jobs into slots that might become available once a month or even once a quarter. Just get them onto the calendar somewhere if you can.

I have two other suggestions regarding perfect days and perfect weeks. First, always have a list of tasks that can be done in 15 minutes or less. If you make sure you're prepared to jump right into them, these can be disposed of during what I call interstitial times. If a phone call and early or your waiting for water to boil order appointment gets canceled, that creates openings to get these done and off your lists.

Second, don't schedule every moment. Leave lots of extra time for projects that go over, illness, emergencies, unexpected visits, and all those things that surprise us on a regular basis. Acknowledge that life cannot be completely controlled and make allowances for that.

I'll repeat one thing – make time at least five days a week for drafting new work. This is the essence of what being a writer is. Sacrifice all the other writer-related work before you skip this. A writer writes.

I begin an online version of my How to Write Fast course next week. To tee it up, here's an article on the Five Reasons to Fast Draft.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 4 - The Use and Misuse of Deadlines

Thanks to years of training, most writers have two powerful tools at their disposal for achieving the goals they commit to — clocks and calendars. Typically, they have had to schedule work, show up on time, and meet deadlines from an early age.

Of course, I know many writers whose raison d’etre seems to be to be to miss deadlines. They make procrastination an art. Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Bad deadlines

If you tend to ignore and consistently miss deadlines, they are NOT helping you to become a more productive writer. In fact, the more you abuse them, the more you build bad habits and put your mental health at risk. Instead of deadlines, you probably would be better off creating rewards for yourself. That way, you can finish any time you want, but you won’t get that cup of coffee until your page is full of words. Two cautions:

  • First, be careful of using vices as rewards. Many a writer has promised him or herself a shot of whiskey once a goal was accomplished. Not a good idea.
  • Second, don’t try this with real deadlines, such as turning in a book to an editor. Failing to meet contractual obligations will not help your career. And be careful to understand what the deadline really means. 
Once I was working on a book where I was required to turn in a chapter a week. This became a problem when each chapter came back with edits (over and over again). I never got to create a proper beginning, and, by the sixth week, I was hopelessly mired in rewrites for each of the previous chapters — with the editor gleefully filling my calendar with more deadlines. (The next book I did was written only on the condition that they would not see one page until the due date for the draft. That worked out fine.)

Good deadlines

These are the ones you accept that are reasonable and clear. For contracts, this means getting everything set up correctly before you sign (as happened with the second book above). For your personal deadlines, it means writing out your promise to yourself. Two tips:
  1. Keep a record of you time spent in writing activities. If you do, over the years, you’ll have a good basis for estimating the time to draft a page, proofread a chapter, write a synopsis, etc.
  2. When you make your estimates for time devoted to a given task or project, add 50%. I draft about 5-7 pages an hour, so, for a 70,000 word book, experience tells me I should complete the first draft in about 60 hours. My estimate for creating a deadline would be 90 hours.
Deadlines can get tricky in cases where you are collaborating. Making sure there is good communication on roles, responsibilities, decisions, and version control is essential. Then, because creative people tend to have more success if they are good team players, set deadlines that are easy so no one feels let down.

Realistically, good deadlines on collaborative work or projects for clients or publishers are not always possible. Opportunities may have due dates (say for a Christmas story) that may not be moveable or that were set before you got involved. In these cases, it is good to have a plan B (with the ability to hand off other projects or household chores). It’s also wise to mentally move the deadline to an earlier date.

In-between deadlines

What I call in-between deadlines are those that may or may not help with your productivity. Contests, new anthologies, and bluebirds (opportunities that come out of nowhere) often fit this definition. For instance, I belong to a script writing group. Many of us use the annual contests, with deadlines generally coming up in May, to mark the endpoint for finishing a work (film or TV script, usually). That seems to work symbiotically with goals aimed at regularly creating marketable works, and it also can create a sense of everyone working together toward common goals, even though these are not collaborations.

On the other hand, contests and pitch opportunities for novels and short stories seem to come up every week or so. Some writers dart from one to another, starting and stopping work, drifting away from their designated Work in Progress, and generally destroying momentum for their projects.

What about intrusive deadlines you don't seek? It is hard and possibly unwise to turn away from an agent’s email asking for a manuscript, even when it comes six months after the query was sent and you are deeply involved in other work. And, when you get a call from a producer asking for a treatment, hanging up the phone might take dedication beyond what’s reasonable. But populating your calendar with deadlines that, upon analysis, would not pay off as well as finishing the Work in Progress, will, in most cases, delay the achievements you’ve planned and worked for.

Limit the deadlines in your life. Strive to make them all achievable and take steps to meet them even if life gets in the way. Make sure the projects you put deadlines to, especially those that intrude on your career plans, are worthy. Take care of your reputation for meeting deadlines that involve clients, collaborators, and publishers.